09 / 2001
Transient fishing villages are a special phenomena in West Bengal, India. Massive villages, comprising several fishing units or ’kunthis’,crop up around November each year and disappear by March the following year. This is both a natural and sociological phenomenon. Water flowing down the Ganges submerges certain land areas in some seasons, leaving it dry and habitable during other seasons. The waters also bring in different varieties of fish that require different gears to harvest. The gillnets are pulled in and the large fixed bagnets come into operation.
All-male fishing crews move into these transient villages with their equipment. Each unit, made up of 1 to 10 boats, has an owner, who engages fishing crew and workers for the whole season, paying either a salary or a share of the catch. The owner sets up a ’kunthi’, which consists of a temporary dormitory for the crew, a kitchen and a godown to store dry fish. Large numbers of families from the inland also move in with their bag and baggage to dry the fish for wages or for payment in kind. The process has been on for a century and is very organized.
An estimated 100,000 people make a living by catching and drying species like bombay duck, ribbon fish and cat fish in these transient villages.
Jaldha is one such village. It is located about 15km east of Contai with no direct access by road. One has to get off a bus, walk along a mud road and through the salt pans for about 2km, take a ferry across the canal and then enter the ’kunthi’, which spreads over an area of about 3sq km right up to the sea. It has long rows of reed huts, like matchboxes, surrounded by bamboo stakes, which mark the boundary of each homestead and delineate the area for drying fish. Each ’kunthi’ varies in size and indicates the number of fishing crew each ’kunthi’ owner is able to employ.
Jaldha normally has between 10,000 to 12,000 people. These numbers have been increasing over the years. These include owners, fishing crews, families who process fish and merchants.
Sita Rani, one of the women here, comes from a little potters’ village about 15km away. She comes with her husband and three of her children. They have been coming to Jaldha for the past 15 years since life in the village became tough. Sita Rani has a small plot of land on which she grows some vegetables. Over 100 families from her village come to Jaldha every year to work for a fishing unit. Each family gets a quantity of fresh fish to sort, clean, salt and dry. They are paid in kind, generally 2 per cent of the total quantity dried. This they store and even sell to meet their needs. People have to borrow money to cover their expenses during the initial days. Sita Rani earned about Rs3000 the last season, after paying off her debt and her camp expenses.
The fishing season begins in November. Once it starts there is no time to rest and as the fish quantities increase the surroundings get dirtier and life becomes really hard. Sita Rani says that she comes because there is no other means of livelihood.
Kohinoor begum is another woman at the ’kunthi’. She has been coming here since she was a child. During the other months of the year she works in the salt pans.
None of these women or their children have been to school. They feel they have been neglected by the government and have no future. They know the general situation is deteriorating because each year the number of workers swells, while the size of the catches decrease.
Transient villages that crop up during the fishing season in West Bengal, are indeed a unique phenomenon. They provided employment and a means of livelihood to vast numbers of people. Large quantities of dry fish are produced, and find their way to other parts of the state. Given the importance of this activity, the government needs to find ways to improve the situation and wages of those who work in this fishery. It would be important to improve the hygiene and sanitation situation in these villages. If livelihoods have to be sustained, there must be an emphasis on selective gear and sustainable fisheries management practices.
Artigos e dossiês ; Livro
NAYAK, Nalini, International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, Women in Fisheries Series : Women First, Report of the Women in Fisheries Programme of ICSF in India, International Collective in. Samudra Dossier Series, 1996 (India), 2, 66-68